And They Built A Crooked House, by Ruth S. Martin



The world is a troupe of unknown lumber dealers and
workers, with a building contractor at their head. You turn
everything over to a gang of people who don't really know you
or have any reason to care about you. You turn over dreams,
pride, and money. It's a frightening gamble.
Tracy Kidder, House, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1985
"Larry, don't build a home. It's nothing but aggravation." This comment from my mother-in-law was rhetorical advice, like "don't invest in junk bonds." Larry's Mom was really saying: 'People have lots of aggravation building new homes. There can be delays in con-struction, arguments with builders, disputes over fixtures, and so forth. But I'm proud of you, Larry, proud that you and Ruth have the money to build a new home. You must know what you're doing, because you're compulsive and cautious about these things. I just don't want you to have aggravation.'

She was right and she was wrong. The actual construction process was relatively painless. It was only after we moved in that aggravation began. We had problems, but the kind that no one -- not Larry's Mom, not us, not any homeowner or professional we know -- has ever encountered before. Building our house was the easy part. Living with it -- when you know it is defective and the builder can't/won't fix it -- that was altogether different.

The basement was dug in mid-November 1985 and from that point construction proceeded quickly. I was at the site almost every day, checking on window placement, closet size, light fixtures, tile work, carpeting, cabinets, appliances, all things a homemaker under-stands. But strength ratios of steel beams? Ceiling joists for floor support? What homeowner knows about beam deflection or `dead load vs. live load'? Unless you are an engineer or architect, you cannot hope to check on what's really important the structural integrity of your house. That you have to leave to professionals. We had insisted that Nelson review the construction process. What greater assurance could there be than having the architect monitor construction?

Construction went smoothly. Murdock seemed responsive and responsible. As was later brought out in depositions, he always returned our phone calls, always agreed to reasonable requests. At that time we had no hint of his incompetence. Like many builders, Murdock subcontracted all of the work to carpenters, masons, bricklayers, and a myriad of other people needed to build a new home. As far as we could tell he did none of the construction work himself, though he was at the site frequently. That he was not a hands-on builder didn't overly concern us, since that seemed typical of most contractors we had heard about. Cer-tainly, we thought, Murdock would hire competent workmen and supervise them closely. On February 10, 1986, midway through construction, architect Nelson sent us a letter:
Dear Larry and Ruth:

I am very happy with the construction quality and progress being made at your new home. [My partner and I] also feel that your home is one of our stronger designs, and we appreciate having had the opportunity to work with you.

Nelson then went on to list some minor items that Murdock was correcting at his suggestion. What an encouraging letter! Con-struction was proceeding smoothly and Nelson was happy with the quality. We would have seemed paranoid to doubt his assessment. We should have been paranoid.